Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
The basic storyline has stayed the same throughout its evolutionary path from the page to the stage. A rather debonair chap at the theatre, Richard Hannay, finds himself suddenly "kidnapped" from his box seat to his own apartment by a sexy, mysterious woman with a heavy German accent, Annabelle Schmidt. Before she quickly becomes a stiff corpse with a knife in her back, he learns from her enough to understand that she is on a mission as a counter-spy to keep important national security information from leaving England. With her dying breath, she sends him on a harried chase to Scotland to find and interrupt "the thirty-nine steps" (code name we will learn for a spy chain, most assuredly connected to the rising Nazi regime of Germany), while also on the run from local police with his picture and accusing headlines plastering every newspaper for a murder he did not commit.
In Patrick Barlow's theatrical version, the suspense and dark natures of Hitchcock's movie version are turned upside down through a ridiculously fast-paced, spontaneous-feeling script that relies on four actors playing upwards of 100+ parts and comes packed with hilarious references laced throughout to many Hitchcock classics. Life-and-death chases through fog-covered bogs on the Scottish highlands, trips on bumpy country roads and swaying trains, and escapes from barking dogs and diving airplanes are all accomplished on a mostly bare backstage through the ingenuity of what appears as actor improvisation but is actually a highly conceived ballet of arms, legs, and bodies moving at lightning speed in all directions. While the actor playing the ever-serious-to-his-mission Richard is constant throughout the play, two other male actors continuously switch hats, coats, voices, stances, and demeanors to take on roles as police, newsboys, villains, country bumpkins, underwear salesmen, and dozens of other quirky parts of varied nationalities and accents. The remaining member of the troupe, a female, plays the enticing but doomed counter-spy, a country inn hostess with heavy Scottish brogue and a big heart, a young farm wife with a wretched husband, and a train passenger who finds herself eventually handcuffed and on the run with a man she has recognized and notified authorities as the accused London murderer (our very own Richard Hannay).
Perhaps because there have been so many productions both nationally and locally of the highly popular spy spoof by Mr. Barlow, Director Kenneth Kelleher has made some decisions in The Stage's production that give it a somewhat different look, feel, and even pace from prior ones I have seen (including the original Broadway and a 2011 TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production). While still making innovative use of rather minimal basic backstage elements such as a couple of ladders, some costume trunks, and a coat rack to create multiple settings, this production has foregone some of the "create-on-the-spot-with-almost-nothing" staging I have previously so enjoyed to insert distinct scenes staged with noisy, rolling props (still fairly crude in make and style) in between numerous blackouts. There is less use of actors becoming not only many live characters but also inanimate objects (like fences to be crawled under and over or locked arms as windows to be crawled through) and instead employing suddenly appearing wooden frames, doors, or railings for these and other needed elements. Rather than use moving toy trains, shadow puppets, or crude projections on a backdrop sheet as in earlier versions, here we have specially produced black-and-white movies depicting police chases or passing trains that have real 1930s cinematic feels to them but that diminish some of the crazy frenzy and over-the-top silliness that I kept waiting to experience.
The overall effect is a production that, while still often fast-paced and frenetic, has added 15-20 minutes to the original Broadway version (two one-hour acts plus intermission as opposed to what I remember as being about one hour, forty minutes, no intermission, in other productions). Gone are elements that I found so hilarious in other productions, including not as many obvious references to Hitchcock's films or even an expected appearance of the master himself. Kudos to Mr. Kelleher for experimenting beyond with what has already been tried and true in so many earlier stagings. Unfortunately, I think his efforts just do not work as well for the full comedic effect possible from this brilliant script.
But putting all that aside, this cast of four is very worthy of much acclaim for their highly entertaining efforts. Cassidy Brown is the suave, handsome Richard Hannay who creates many laughs by being low-key in demeanor and serious in his mission to save the country even when there is nothing at all serious happening around him. With other actors and their purposely over-done accents manically switching persona, costumes, and even sexes right before his steady blue eyes and pencil-thin mustache, he keeps cool and calm in between mad dashes to thwart capture. In each of her female roles, Allison F. Rich makes great use of her stunning eyes that can go from sinister to sexy to silly as demanded by her changing roles. Her varying accents are wonderfully fun and funnylike her heavily dominated "sch" substitutes for a mere "s" when, as the German Annabelle Schmidt, she says words like "schtopped" or "schtepped".
As they bring several score of city and countryside good and bad guys (and gals) to life before our eyes, the real stars of the night are the two actors designated as Clown 1 and Clown 2, Keith Pinto and Edward Hightower. With great use of Abra Berman's design of quick-change costumes, hats, and wigs, they switch ages, nationalities, economic classes, or sexes at the turn of a corner, a duck behind a trunk, or even right before our eyes. Like Ms. Rich, they too employ a number of dialects with great ease and effect, from high English airs to country Scottish slurs to harsh German clicks.
Much audience fun and laughter are the result of the evening's antics and the ups and downs of a story where its hero constantly escapes discovery and death to finally secure in the end his proven innocence and his beautiful girl. While I still believe this production and its directorial choices sacrificed some of the rolling-in-the-aisle moments possible, for anyone who has not yet seen Patrick Barlow's adaptation of The 39 Steps, I urge you to head to The Stage for a fully fun outing.
The 39 Steps continues through December 20, 2015, at The Stage, 490 South 1st Street, San Jose. For information and tickets, visit www.thestage.org or call 408-283-7142.